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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Gift of Tears

‘The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is it prompts reflection.’  That child lived in an allegedly Christian household: her mother was a fervent Pentecostal, the writer  Jeanette Winterson. Her marvellous autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? tells a scarcely believable story about an oppressive upbringing fictionalised in the novel and TV series Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. ‘I was not a popular or a likeable child,’ she says. ‘School situations always pick out the misfit.’  One day her class was given the project of embroidering a text of their choice. Jeanette famously chose words from Jeremiah: ‘the summer is ended and we are not yet saved’, given us in our first reading.

In the light of what we have learned about the cruel abuse heaped on young Daniel in Coventry, and thinking of my grandson Isaac baptised here three weeks ago who by contrast is so much loved and cherished, it’s tempting to speak about childhood and how we love and don’t love children. But that must wait for another day. I need to stay with this Jeremiah. There is a link, I suppose: Jeremiah, called to the impossible task of being a prophet, pleads he is ‘only a child’: how can he find the words or have the courage to utter them when there is no hope that they will be heard or understood?  

‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’. Apt words for the weekend of the autumn equinox. I have always found them haunting. The summer has been glorious, but its long golden days are becoming a memory. The Lindisfarne Gospels will soon leave us again for their southern exile, not to return home for many years. The flowers that glowed in our marvellous festival are dead. Summer has too short a lease: its light is being overtaken, and soon we shall be lighting fires in cold dark places. Jeremiah’s autumnal farewell to good times captures the mood of fall. And maybe his elegiac outpourings of two and half millennia ago can speak to us who also find it hard to take our leave of light-filled health or happiness or hope.

This is one of the so-called ‘confessions’ of Jeremiah, in which this most passionate of prophets exposes something of the agony and self-doubt going on inside. This was a young man who had never sought to be a prophet, never wanted to speak out as prophets must, never contemplated the pain and misery it would bring him. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.’  In another place he cries out like Job, ‘Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?’ And out pour the relentless questions: five of them in this short reading. ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?’

What strikes us about these cries of pain is their honesty. They don’t pretend. Jeremiah is telling the truth about his condition: that it is unbearably hard to be hurt, misunderstood, in pain, in despair and above all, without a friend. And like others in the Hebrew Bible, he is not afraid to acknowledge the reality of dark times. Many of the psalms are in the same minor key: there are more laments in the Psalter than any other kind of psalm. It is a courageous thing to do, to turn suffering back to God and argue with him. It’s what we find at the cross when Jesus cries in the words of one of the most desolate psalm laments: Lema, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  All of life has a dark side, a night that overtakes the day, a winter that dispels summer. Sometimes we expect it, often it takes us by surprise. True religion recognises that faith is not a pain-killing escape from that shadow but a way of facing it truthfully. Faith helps us stope pretending. The job of the church is not to sell comfort but courage. Life is hard. We need the virtue of fortitude. Faith points us in the right direction.  

But his confessions are not just his own personal outpourings. They belong to an entire people. At the end of the 6th century, an ominous cloud hung over Judah, the threat of being overrun by Babylon their overlord amassing soldiers and weapons on their borders. Those with eyes to see understood that the life they knew was at an end, ruin was imminent and those who survived would be deported to a strange land where it was not obvious whether they could ever again sing the Lord’s song. Jeremiah never wavered in looking this prospect in the eyes, and speaking about it as God’s work, though it cost him dear. Neither did he walk away when he had spoken such hard words but stood with his people, imploring God’s mercy, yet knowing that he and they would not escape judgment. As a victim himself, his destiny embodied theirs. He talked of being a lamb led to the slaughter - precisely how he also saw Judah. To make other people’s sufferings and fears your own is the mark of true ministry, compassion. It is the image of Jesus who emptied himself so as to take the form of a slave and share our human condition. It is how God is, who, says the passion story, always stands with us in our darkness and our pain.

Sunt lachrimae rerum: ‘there are tears in things’ says Virgil in a beautiful but untranslatable line. This lament ends that way. ‘O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!’ It sounds like a cry of despair. Yet the strange thing is that lament opens the way to a new perspective. It purifies the gaze, helps us see differently. The desert fathers spoke of the ‘gift of tears’ as a kind of baptism, meaning not just what we call self-awareness, emotional intelligence, but a cleansing of the soul. To be at the lowest point of lament, where we have nothing else to rely on or trust in, things become clearer, and faith senses that in ways we can’t understand, God himself could be in the midst of our ordeal, a crucified God who knows pain and darkness, a God who, says our psalm, though he has his dwelling on high, yet humbles himself to behold things that are on earth; who not only sees but acts by taking the lowly out of the dust and lifting the poor out of the mire.  

Psalm laments usually end on a note of confidence, even thankfulness. There is a turning-round, a belief that we are heard. Sometimes it is feeble and tentative, barely glimpsed before it is snuffed out again, as in other laments of Jeremiah.  Sometimes, it transfigures despair as in the miserere psalm Jesus quotes on the cross where faith wins through to a radiant sunburst. But when we find ourselves shedding tears for the tragedy of Syria, or the victims of Nairobi, or little Daniel and so many children abused in literal or metaphorical coal holes, or for the friend we love who has a terminal illness, or for ourselves in the fear or pain or shame that haunt us, we are in a place where prayer becomes possible. And when we are overwhelmed, and can’t find it in ourselves to pray, we can at least weep for others and for our broken selves.  We can hold out empty hands as we do in this eucharist, to receive what mercy and love want to give. This is not a happy ending, but the hard exacting journey through the vale of soul-making that lasts a lifetime. Not a happy ending, but the most important journey there is. Is there any other path we would want to walk but this?

Durham Cathedral, 22 September 2013
Jeremiah 8.18-9.1, Psalm 113